Friday, April 25, 2008

Dialing (down) for dollars

Rocker Sammy Hagar famously protested the speed limits of the ’70s and ’80s with his “I Can’t Drive 55.” Eventually, of course, those restrictions largely gave way, and we’ve enjoyed 70 and above on much of the Interstate system since.

The double-nickel feels like a crawl to anyone who’s not Amish, but with $4-plus diesel and soon gasoline, how would you feel about 65 mph (and would we call that “Doing Retirement”)?

ATA has asked the Bush administration to pull a few bucks out of their Oil Patch buddies’ wallets and mandate that speed limiters be set at 65 mph on new trucks and impose a national 65 mph speed limit.

That’s laudable, because reducing your speed to what’s optimum for your truck (or car, for that matter)can mean reducing consumption – the famous “Sweet Spot.” But reduced speed also means fewer (legal) miles in a given amount of time. So those drivers who are paid by the mile will find themselves doing some fancy algebra to decide whether it’s better to dial back or pony up more for fuel, while risking a ticket.

This article is pretty typical of reports cropping up all over the country. Embedded in there are some other scary thoughts – when time/miles = money, then people and bosses postpone or skip on maintenance. That scares, or should scare, truckers as much as it does four-wheelers who hear rumors or slanted reports about unsafe trucks and drivers.

DOT officers have often told me they look for telltale signs that a vehicle isn’t well-maintained as it comes through a weigh station: excessive rusting, burned-out or broken lights, beat-up tires, just general shabbiness. The odds are they will find a citable problem if it’s pulled around back. Bada-bing! Another hit to your Swiss-cheesed wallet.

According to the Journal-Gazette article mentioned above, some drivers are already dialing down their speeds. What about you? And what are you hearing from your customers or the companies you lease to? After all, you have to make those deliveries on time, and some might not take kindly to your explanation that you drove slower than the speed limit. Let’s hear.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Jim Hebe is back

Last week I wrote in a daily news story that former Freightliner CEO James Hebe had a new job with Navistar International as senior vice president of North American sales. He’s accepted a high profile position with the company he started out with way back in 1971. Yep, he’s going back into the executive thick of it. And he seemed so happy pheasant hunting.

I am getting a load of e-mail from trucking industry veterans who found particular interest in my story. Some truckers wanted to comment on Jim’s role as the Freightliner guy who wanted to put black boxes in trucks. Some comrades in the trucking press shared interesting memories of interviews with Hebe. Some readers were amused that I wrote that Hebe is to trucking what William Shatner is to television, likening his roles in trucking to Shatner’s Capt. Kirk and Denny Crain – a good likening in my mind.

But most just wondered why he would want to be back on prime time during such a tough time for Class 8 truck sales. I guess that’s why I called him last week.

The last time I spoke to him was before Christmas. He was pheasant hunting and seemed to be enjoying his work at Co-Van International. He sounded relaxed, joking around. When I talked to him this past week, he recalled some of the fun times with the trucking press when he was Freightliner CEO.

Fun? I will agree with that. But it wasn’t all fun. His desire for on-board recorders and his disastrous buyback fleet plan often placed Hebe squarely in the crosshairs. In 1999, he said – on the record – that he believed on-board recorders were going to be “required” and that Freightliner was going to place them on their trucks as standard equipment. He told Transport Topics that it wasn’t a question of if and when anymore, it was only a question of when. He added, “I don’t care what the industry thinks about our position on data recorders: The ball game is over.”

Suddenly, the war of words between Jim Hebe and OOIDA’s Jim Johnston was red hot. Hebe eventually backed off. Of course, he had to when his customer base was going nuts. He told Land Line Magazine that it didn’t make sense to pursue it if customers did not want it.

A fellow trucking editor said recently that the press always regarded Hebe as an engaging and likeable honcho in his role at Freightliner. One thing for sure, his press conferences were full of the unexpected.

I recall one presser at Louisville, the annual Freightliner breakfast, that could have been a bore but wasn’t. It was during the week before they threw the doors open to the public, so other booths were under construction on the big floor of what used to be the South Wing.

Against a background of buzzing drills, beeping forklifts, white-coated waiters served up scrambled eggs, sausage, fruit, muffins, the works, to the business press. Then we sat down to hear the CEO push the company line and maybe introduce a new model truck. Hebe attempted his speech but was interrupted several times by a call over the loudspeaker for two guys named Juan and Miguel to return to the Caterpillar (I think it was Caterpillar) booth. He resumed his speech, but was interrupted a third time by the call for the two workmen to return to their work area.

Hebe leaned forward on the lectern and roared into his microphone, “Juan, Miguel! Get your asses back to the Caterpillar booth!” Then he straightened the tie under a pristine white collar and without a trace of his previous ire, continued his speech to the press.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bad brokers and bottom feeders

It’s not hard to find a raw nerve in the trucking industry right now. But the Special Report I wrote on Tuesday, April 22, really set off a firestorm of sorts.

A long-time trucking analyst Donald Broughton reported that 935 trucking companies with five or more trucks went out of business in the first quarter of this year. You can read the whole article here.

What seemed to capture the attention of several readers was the observation that brokers collect fuel surcharges but fail to pass them on. That only scratches the surface of the havoc that brokers are playing with shipping rates.

I started getting messages about brokered loads where the broker was making nearly twice as much as the trucker. Two amazing examples involved government loads.

The first load needed to be transported 95 miles. The trucker was paid $500 to haul it. Hey, that’s more than $5 per mile. What a great rate.

The second load consisted of one pallet that only had to go 63 or so miles, and the trucker raked in $600 – that’s right, a $10-per-mile rate.

In a time where truckers are struggling to get paid a rate that covers their cost of hauling the load, these hardly seem to be examples of what is wrong in the industry.

With apologies to Paul Harvey, here’s the rest of the story.

The broker who handled the first load was paid $1,950. The trucker got $500 of that, so the broker made $1,450 – nearly three times what the trucker who actually did the work made.

The second load paid the broker $1,767. After the trucker was paid his $600 for doing the work, the broker made a whopping $1,167 – bordering on two times the amount the trucker made.

There are two brokers who sat on their hind ends, made a few calls and sent out invoices. I mean, come on; they couldn’t have put in more than an hour’s worth of work for either load – to be generous.

It easy to see why the truckers didn’t question the rates – $5 and $10 per mile are incredible. But that’s chump change compared to the $20 and $18 per mile our tax money actually paid for the loads.

And who benefited in the long run? It sure as hell wasn’t the trucker.

Everyone knows these loads are the exception. But the highway robbery committed by these brokers isn’t.

We routinely find cases where brokers take 40 to 60 percent of the rate and pocket it. Sure they provide a service and deserve a cut, but to make more than the trucker for less work hardly seems fair.

So, anyone who wonders where all the good rates have gone might look a little closer at that rate your broker is pitching you. You too may find there’s more to the story.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Oregon continues smear campaign

There’s really nothing else you can call Operation Trucker Check conducted by the Oregon Department of Transportation. It’s a smear campaign.

Results aren’t in from the 72-hour enforcement blitz that ran from April 15-17 are out, but guess what – they’re still touting drug tests from the last one where basically 10 percent of all truckers are doped up, driving bad equipment with no sleep.

Enforcement blitzes happen all the time, and the results are seldom what we’d like to see in terms of overall compliance with the regs. But generally the percentages of violations are far lower than what we see out of Oregon.

One has to wonder why that is.

Take the final results from Operation Trucker Check XIII this past fall. In that enforcement blitz, 468 commercial drivers provided voluntary urine samples. Tests found 8.7 percent tested positive for “at least one drug.”

There are so many things wrong with that statement; I don’t even really know where to begin.

There were 468 truckers who provided “voluntary” urine samples. It doesn’t take anyone with much common sense to question just how voluntarily those samples were given. How nicely were truckers asked to give up the sample? I’d bet those using illegal drugs were less than eager in volunteering their tainted samples. Yet for some reason they gave it up.

Here’s another thing, I made a big distinction there – I mentioned the use of illegal drugs. Oregon DOT doesn’t make that distinction. “Tests found 8.7 percent tested positive for at least one drug.” There’s no “illegal” in that sentence. That means over-the-counter drugs were counted in the “positive” results.

After the final results of Operation Trucker Check XIII came out, I put a call into the Oregon DOT. These tests were not conducted using DOT-mandated procedures. There were no split-samples. There were no concentration cutoff levels to help weed out false positives, so even minute amounts of legal over-the-counter drugs were counted in the test results. And there was no follow-up to ensure the initial test results were accurate.

I really want to know why the Oregon DOT feels compelled to conduct these roadside tests. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration already reported a well-documented 2 percent of truckers are busted using illegal drugs.

If Oregon thinks that 2 percent is low or inaccurate, step up to the plate and conduct the testing up to federal standards.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that if you use illegal drugs you don’t belong behind the wheel of truck.

But, for crying out loud, what the Oregon DOT is doing is asinine. They are hurting the reputation of the professional truckers on the road. They are using their stature as a law enforcement agency to vouch for the validity of their less-than-credible testing.

As suspected, their test results are being touted by the safety groups. Truckers are, once again, the reckless children who run with scissors and have no regard for public safety. If given enough time and traction, these bogus results are only going to hurt the honest men and women in the industry.

Safety groups are going to demand more testing. More of your time off the road proving, once again, you’re clean.

I got it: Let’s test all of the cops in Oregon. Maybe once those test results show that nearly 10 percent of all cops use, they’ll understand how ridiculous testing is just another cog in the anti-trucker smear campaign.

Editor's note: The original post of this blog neglected to point out that the Oregon State Police also participated in Operation Trucker Check along with the Oregon DOT commercial vehicle enforcement.